Some 3000 participants from around the world convene this week in Istanbul for the 9th meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (0) (IGF). The role of IGF is to support the United Nations Secretary-General in developing governance principles for the Internet. To do so, IGF brings people from various stakeholder groups together in discussions on public policy issues relating to the Internet. While there is no negotiated outcome to these discussions, the IGF informs and inspires those who influence the policy-making process in both public and private sectors. Topics on the agenda this week include net neutrality, digital trust, and the Internet’s role in promoting human rights, content creation, growth and development.
A key portion of the conference focus on the multiple perspectives on the issue of net neutrality, reflecting the diverse nature of the participants and the constituents they represent. As the Internet becomes increasingly global, American stakeholders are stepping up their visibility in the IGF and increasing their learning about the rest of the world. FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn attended a main session on net neutrality to reiterate the FCC’s commitment to an open Internet, including transparency, a no blocking rule, and reasonable network management.
It was observed that two-thirds of the world’s population is not yet online and that having a global discussion about net neutrality is likely premature. Connectivity is the first priority of many stakeholders. In this vein, the discussion of zero rating programs was particularly insightful as it offers a way to get people in developing countries online.
Zero rating is a mobile business model in which certain content or applications are not counted toward the consumer’s data cap. Such programs are used as an incentive to get people to try the Internet by offering a particular service. The program is popular across developing countries, particularly in India where the elderly, who have never used the Internet or a computer, now use zero rated programs for Facebook and WhatsApp to connect with their grandchildren around the world.
Yana Welinder, Legal Counsel for the Wikimedia Foundation shared interesting information about Wikipedia Zero, a version of Wikipedia designed for mobile platforms in developing countries and only offered through zero rated bundles. It is offered to carriers on a non-exclusive basis, and no payment is exchanged either way. Wikipedia Zero is available to an estimated 350 million people in 30 countries; it serves more than 65 million pageviews every month. The Wikimedia Foundation has received requests from grassroots organizations around the world to bring the program to their country. After one Nepalese edited 6000 entries on Hindu culture on Wikipedia (1) with a feature phone, Wikimedia brought the program to Nepal (2).
Helani Galpaya, CEO of LIRNEasia noted that mobile phones have a high penetration across countries in South-East and South Asia, and that there even exist a fair number of low priced data plans. However there are many at the so-called bottom of the pyramid for whom even a low priced data plan is still challenging. Zero rating has helped them come on aboard.
One criticism of zero rating is that it gives users a myopic view of the Internet. However Alejandro Pisanty, Director General for Academic Computing Services at the National University of Mexico (UNAM) and member of ISOC and ICANN, dispelled that notion by pointing out that users of zero rated programs combine them with wifi network access to access the rest of the Internet.
Furthermore, it’s important from a social justice perspective that for activists in many countries, Facebook and Twitter are the de facto platforms for communication. Access to these platforms are important for many, and they welcome zero rated access. In Iran for example, it might not be possible to use an Iranian platform for advocacy and authenticity because of government censorship.
Another criticism of zero rating is that it could be detrimental to competitors of the popular services. However, as was observed at the conference, many of the programs are offered on a non-discriminatory basis, so other services can also be a part of the package. Galpaya at LIRNEAsia noted that some countries are exploring how locally developed apps and government services could come under the program. She noted that in order to do this, governments need to make data available in real time in digital and standardized fashion. Additionally Wikipedia is also open to collaborating with other public interest sites.
Berin Szoka of TechFreedom outlined best practices from a variety of programs and countries. He noted that Turckell offers its program only for a limited time, so users will eventually need to upgrade to full Internet packages. This approach has driven data plan adoption significantly in Turkey.
The zero rate discussion led to the larger question of how mobile is priced. It was observed that the allocation of spectrum could be improved and the need for smart regulation (government to reduce red tape, provide the “poles and holes” so that companies can deploy infrastructure).
However despite the many benefits of such programs, they have been outlawed in countries such as Chile, and a number of advocates in the US are calling for similar prohibitions. A group of Internet activists from Sudan 2.0 expressed concern that such bans will impinge their ability to engage in zero rate programs, which they consider important to develop engaged Internet users and their own Internet economy.
There is growing interest to learn more about zero rated programs, and a number of individuals and organizations are studying it. The worst idea would be to outlaw it before data about its effects could even be collected. As Szoka observed about permissionless innovation; don’t ban what you don’t understand.